Tag Archives: eternal valley cemetery

"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 2

Rock and roll pioneer and “permanent” Newhall resident Gene Vincent was instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together.

As the story goes, in July 1957, 15-year-old McCartney was talked into visiting a church festival to audition for the band The Quarrymen, which was led by 16-year-old John Lennon. McCartney reportedly played a 10-minute medley of songs by Gene, Eddie Cochran, and Little Richard. Lennon was so impressed with the younger McCartney that he asked him to join the band. Later, just before “Beatlemania” was to wash over the world, the Beatles met and befriended their idol in Hamburg where Gene helped them craft their sound.

Gene still had lots of fans stateside as well, including Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors.

Gene was on tour in England in April 1960 when a taxi he was riding in hit a cement post. The crash seriously injured Gene and killed his cab-mate Eddie Cochran, who had made a name for himself with Summertime Blues.

Gene spent most of the next decade flitting between London and Hollywood, while recording and touring sporadically. Years of heavy drinking, bad relationships, and poor management compromised his finances and wrecked his health. He was with his parents in Saugus in 1971 when he was rushed to what was later called the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, where a bleeding ulcer took him away from a world that had largely forgotten him.

But Gene could never be completely forgotten. Be-Bop-A-Lula, which was released 55 years ago this week, still garners airplay – either in its original version, or as covered by such performers as Gary Glitter, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Stray Cats, Queen, and not surprisingly, both Lennon and McCartney.

Gene has won some posthumous acclaim as well. Rolling Stone magazine once called Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps “the first rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” and Be-Bop-A-Lula was listed as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland where Gene was inducted in 1998. More recently, Guitar Edge magazine voted Gene onto its list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time,” (although, in all fairness it should have been Cliff Gallup being honored, as he was the true master guitarist of the Blue Caps).

Gene was laid to rest at Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery. French-born fan and Newhall resident Chris Bouyer hopes to see the city where Gene is buried to pay tribute to their permanent resident with an annual music festival.

“I would love to see the city of Newhall host a yearly rockabilly festival in February around Gene’s birthday,” says Bouyer. “There is a huge rockabilly underground, and I know that a festival like that could draw thousands of fans from all around the world. I imagine the festival as something that would start small and then grow big,” says Bouyer. “All it will take will be work, dedication, and passion. But that’s the story of everything worthwhile. That’s the story of rock and roll. And that’s the story of Gene.”

“Be-Bop-a-Lula … She-e-e’s my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll.”

 

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The Tor Tour (Revisited)

(I originally published this last Halloween, but since today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Tor Johnson, I thought I would dust it off and present it again.)

A “tor” is an ancient word meaning “a large pile of rocks.”

6’4” 400-pound Swedish-born actor Tor Johnson (1903 – May 12, 1971) was a man who looked like he’d been carved out of a large pile of rocks. Johnson became a Z-film fan favorite in Ed Wood “classics” like Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Johnson was born Tor Johansson in Sweden on October 19, 1903, just three days before the birth of Curly Howard, another famous screen personality with a shaved head. He was barnstorming the wrestling circuit as “The Super-Swedish Angel” when he first got the attention of Hollywood in 1933 in bit roles where he usually appeared as a wrestler or circus strongman.

Johnson’s acting resume didn’t always elicit giggles. He shared the screen with several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, and W.C. Fields. He was featured in several A-List productions, including Shadow of the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton, State of the Union with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Road To Rio with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.

But it was an appearance in a no-budget production for which Johnson is best remembered. In 1959, Johnson played a zombie, alongside Bela Lugosi and Vampira, in cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s magnum-opus of schlock, Plan Nine From Outer Space – a film widely regarded as the worst ever made (It isn’t. That distinction goes to another of Tor’s films, The Beast of Yucca Flats.)

Since Halloween is coming up in a few days, and Tor’s face was the model for one of the biggest-selling Halloween masks of all time, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief tour of some of Tor’s old “haunts.”

Plan Nine From Outer Space

The interiors for Plan Nine were filmed in a warehouse in Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard just east of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tor’s home, at 15129 Lakeside Street in the San Fernando Valley city of Sylmar, was used as Bela Lugosi’s house in the film. Also found in Sylmar is the San Fernando Pioneer Cemetery where Lugosi, now as a vampire-zombie, comes back to life.

The Beast of Yucca Flats

This film was made in the Santa Clarita Valley before the Los Angeles metropolitan area had discovered it. It is hard to know for sure, but it looks to have been filmed near the Mystery Mesa area off of Vasquez Canyon Road in Canyon Country.

Eternal Valley Cemetery

Tor was laid to rest in plot 177 of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery after his death in 1971. His stone reads, “Beloved Husband, Father and Grandfather.” This was true. Johnson was said to be a kind man whose “gentle giant” nature contrasted sharply to the monsters he played on film.

It seems this pile of rocks hid a heart of pure gold.


Eternal Sounds

It’s one thing to achieve success in music, but quite another to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of a genre (at least it was until they put Madonna in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that’s another story).

Today we’ll pay a visit to the three Hall of Fame musicians who are housed at Eternal Valley Cemetery in Newhall.

+++++++

After entering the gates, we climb the hill, passing by the final resting place of giant Tor Johnson from Plan Nine From Outer Space along the way.

Near the top, at the upper end of the Garden of Prayer rests musical legend Cliffie Stone. Stone, born Clifford Snyder, was a country singer, musician, disk jockey, record producer, author, and music publisher.

As the host of the Hometown Jamboree radio program from 1946-1960, he helped launch the careers of dozens of country musicians. The multi-tasking Stone was signed by Capitol Records in Hollywood as both an artist and as head of their Country & Western division. At the end of his life, he kept busy directing Gene Autry’s vast publishing empire.

Stone was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the corner of Sunset and Vine, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.

On the far south side of the cemetery in the Garden of Meditation rests singer Roy Brown.

Roy James Brown was born in New Orleans in 1925 and began his career as a gospel singer. He later switched to the blues, and is now considered to be a pioneer voice in rock and roll history.

 

Brown recorded his most famous song, Good Rocking Tonight, in 1947. The song was later covered by Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and a host of other performers. A dazzling showman, Brown helped pave the way for later performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

His fortunes declined during the 1960s to the point that he was forced to sell encyclopedias to make ends meet. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, which was the same year that he died.

Down the hill in plot 91 of the Garden of Repose rests rocker Gene Vincent, Eternal Valley’s most famous resident.

Eugene Vincent Craddock was born in Virginia in 1935. He got his first guitar at the age of 12 and dropped out of school to join the navy a few years later.

While in the navy, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident and while recuperating, wrote the classic rock and roll song Be-Bop-A-Lula.

This song, which was later covered by everyone from Queen to John Lennon, quickly went gold and led to Vincent and his band, The Blue Caps, earning a spot in the landmark rock and roll film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield.

Vincent continued to perform until his death, but never equaled the success of Be-Bop. He died from the effects of alcoholism in 1971, and was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Along a line of shrubs in the Zane Grey Gardens is the grave of Tex Williams. While not a Hall of Famer (yet), Williams had a long and successful career as a country singer/songwriter. During the 1940s and ’50s he also starred in a series of low-budget western musicals for Universal, known as “oaters.”

Williams first struck musical gold in 1945 as the lead singer of the Spade Cooley Orchestra when their single Shame On You became a smash hit and stayed on the country charts for 31 weeks. Eternal Valley neighbor Cliffie Stone later offered Williams his own recording contract and Tex left Cooley to form “Tex Williams and His Western Caravan.”

In 1947, their single Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) topped both the country and the pop charts, becoming Capitol Records’ first million-selling record.

Not surprisingly, the singer died of lung cancer in his Newhall home in 1985.

 


What’s Outside of Awesometown?

Outside of Valencia, California, which is known to city promoters as “Awesometown,” there is a big world filled with people, cars, countries, and reality shows. Outside of Pleasantville, a fictional town from a comedy that was partially filmed in Valencia, you won’t find much past Elm Street.

1998’s Pleasantville is a story about a 1950s sitcom which is centered around a utopian American town populated by a God-fearing, allegiance-pledging citizenry. The town is thought to live only in reruns, but in reality, it still exists in a televised time-bubble. The townsfolk, like characters in a Jasper Fforde novel, conduct their lives only in the one-dimensional way they were written, doomed to forever repeat the actions their writers gave them.

Pleasantville’s perfectly sanitized world, where the biggest crisis is a cat stuck in a tree, quickly changes when David and Jennifer, a pair of high school twins from the late 1990s played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, get sucked into the series through their television set. The teleportation comes about thanks to a magical remote given to them by a mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, who was himself a long-time citizen of another television Eden called Mayberry. After the twins enter the picture, changes quickly occur beginning when Jennifer brings her Pleasantville Geography class to a standstill by asking, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?”

Color plays a central role in Pleasantville where the citizens see the world literally and figuratively in black-and-white. The changes brought about by the twins result in a gradual transformation of the Pleasantville world to color. Depending on one’s point of view, the use of color in the film signifies either an increase in knowledge and sophistication or of corruption.

Pleasantville was one of my favorite films of the 1990s and I was happy to recently learn that some of it was filmed in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Valencia High School, where my stepson is a sophomore, is the school shown at the beginning of the film where David trips all over himself asking a girl out on a date, and where he prepares for a Pleasantville trivia contest. While this takes place, his slutty twin sister Jennifer and her friends look on in disgust at her nerdy brother, and conduct an entire conversation with a group of guys centered around the word “Hey.” Valencia High’s quad, outdoor cafeteria, and the area outside the theater are seen on screen.

Later in the film, a car drives through a street that appears to be in Stevenson Ranch, which borders Valencia. Another SCV connection can be found in the soundtrack when rocker Gene Vincent sings Be-Bop-A-Lula. Vincent is a “permanent resident” of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery.

The SCV is a frequent filming site for films and television shows, with The Unit, Big Love, Criminal Minds, NCIS, The Mentalist, and Bones currently lensing locally.

If you’d like to learn more about the film and television history of the Santa Clarita Valley, feel free to sign up for the next session of my “Newhallywood on Location” film class in January in Newhall’s Heritage Junction.

I promise that it’ll be swell.


Harold Lloyd and Helter Skelter: The Santa Susana Pass

Harold Lloyd

For over a decade now, film historian John Bengtson has been using his keen investigative eye to find forgotten locations from the greatest films of the silent era’s favorite funny-men. As a huge fan of his previous books about comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I jumped at the chance to help photograph some locations for his upcoming book on Harold Lloyd, silent comedy’s “third genius.”

That’s how Kimi and I found ourselves over the weekend between Chatsworth and Simi Valley along the Santa Susana Pass hunting down locations from films made over eighty years ago.

Many of the world’s warmest cinematic memories were born along this stretch of highway. Lloyd often performed daredevil stunts for comedic effect along the Southern Pacific Railroad line that passes through the area. Keaton also filmed here at the old Iverson Movie Ranch, where he used the stony landscape masterfully in portraying a caveman for a segment of a film called Three Ages. The pass’ rugged, rock-strewn locations also served as backdrops for literally thousands of Westerns over the years, and are the very image of the Old West in the minds of millions around the world.

Charles Manson

There is a site of another film ranch along Santa Susana Pass, the Spahn Movie Ranch, that also provided its share of movie magic to the world, but is known today for the part it played in one of Los Angeles’ most heinous killing sprees.

The Spahn Ranch site today.

Forty-one years ago today, cult leader Charles Manson ordered four members of his “Family,” as his followers were known, to murder everyone in a house in Benedict Canyon. His drug-fueled motive for the killings was to spark “Helter Skelter,” a race war between blacks and whites. The grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate and five others, along with the butchering of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife the following night in similar fashion, were launched from Spahn Ranch, where the fake family lived in an artificial Western town.

The Family arrived at Spahn Ranch in 1968 and took up residence in shacks that had modeled as a Western set for several films and television shows, including Bonanza. The ranch was owned by 80-year-old George Spahn, who let Manson and his followers live at the site in exchange for sexual favors from the female members of the Family.

The ranch during the days of "Helter Skelter."

A week after the killings, Manson and 25 Family members were rounded-up at the ranch on suspicion of auto theft, but were later released on a technicality. They fled to Death Valley where they were eventually apprehended, and several Family members, including Manson, were tried and convicted for their roles in the murders.

Today, nothing is left of the former film ranch after a wildfire burned every building to the ground a year after the killings.

It’s jarring to think that the same stretch of highway can be the birthplace of such laughter … and such terror.

George Spahn's grave at Newhall's Eternal Valley Cemetery.


Ed Wood’s New “Plan”

Just when you thought it was safe to don a pair of 3D glasses. …

It’s been announced that cross-dressing auteur Ed Wood’s 1959 schlocky science fiction film Plan Nine From Outer Space is being re-released to theaters sometime this summer in a colorized 3D format.

All I can say is: What took them so long?

Plan Nine is often called the worst movie ever made and contains all the elements of an anti-classic masterpiece: bad direction, terrible acting, a story that’s meaningless, cheesy special effects, and dialogue that’s unintelligible. But instead of being a “worst movie ever” candidate, the accolade the film should garner is “the most hilarious movie ever made that wasn’t supposed to be.”

Plan Nine is so bad that it’s hard to believe that it was ever meant to be taken seriously. Several of the scenes are so unintentionally hysterical that you imagine it being a spoof of bad 50s sci-fi films, rather than simply being one. I have seen dozens of “great films” that were yawners. Plan Nine is never boring. In fact, it’s fantastic.

Plan Nine “starred” some of Ed Wood’s usual suspects, including permanent Newhall resident Tor Johnson (he’s interred in Eternal Valley Cemetery) and one-time James Dean gal-pal Vampira (Maila Nurmi). Wood, whose ambition outpaced his talent, reportedly made the film for $60,000. He must have been spent the lion’s share of the budget on angora sweaters, because the money’s not found on the screen.

The film was partially shot at the Pioneer Cemetery in San Fernando and nearby in front of Tor Johnson’s house. I am currently working with some great ladies from their historical society to show the movie at the cemetery later this year as a fundraiser for the preservation of the grounds. Keep checking here for details: www.scvhs.org

Incidentally, a documentary on the making of another Tor Johnson offering, The Beast of Yucca Flats (which was filmed in Saugus), will be packaged in an upcoming “Mystery Science Theater 3000” set.

The Beast of Yucca Flats, in case you’re wondering, is the worst film ever made.